November 9, 2001

Grossmont College Puts Heart Into Top-Notch Program

By Yvette tenBerge

It is 1:30 p.m. on October 22 and Grossmont College's Cardiovascular Technology lab is alive with activity. A group of first-year students consisting of two Brazilian doctors, a Ukrainian ballerina turned nurse and a Cuban-American who recently retired from the Navy pour over diagrams of the human body. A pair of second-year students sits in a darkened room to the right, working intently on high-tech medical equipment.

Rick Kirby (at head of table) visits with students at a study session.

It is rare that you find a specialized area of study that draws students from such varied backgrounds, but Grossmont College's Cardiovascular Technology program not only attracts a diverse group of students, it also prepares them for and propels them into a lucrative career in which the current demand far exceeds the supply.

Rick Kirby has coordinated the Cardiovascular Technology Department for 16 years. He describes the way in which these technologists touch millions of lives every day.

"Let's say that you come into a doctor's office. The doctor performs a physical, takes your medical history and orders a series of tests. The cardiovascular technologist would perform these tests and give the results to the doctor. The doctor does the interpretation and prescribes treatment. In three to six months, the doctor will ask you to come back, and we would do another test to measure your progress," says Mr. Kirby, who explains that cardiovascular medicine aims to prevent heart attacks, strokes and heart failure. "You get to really see the difference that we can make in people's lives. It's a tremendous feeling to be able to help people live longer and feel better."

Although it doesn't take a medical degree to study the "technical side of medicine," it does take dedication. Of the 54 students entering the program each year, each has already successfully completed classes in chemistry, anatomy and physiology.

Once admitted into the two-year cardiovascular technology program, students spend their first year tackling core courses such as mathematics, physics and advanced cardiovascular anatomy. In the second year, class time combines with clinical experience, and students concentrate on one of three areas of study: Invasive Cardiovascular Technology, Nonin-vasive Cardiovascular Technology or Vascular Technology.

Although a degree from this nationally respected, two-year program costs only $1,000 (including books), technologists enter a career field in which growth is continuous and where salaries range anywhere from $36,000 to $70,000 per year. Mr. Kirby confirms that, since the program started in 1972, Grossmont has graduated and placed roughly 1600 technologists.

"Most of these graduates are doing work everyday in labs, but some of us like to teach. Others come back to Grossmont and take courses in statistics and computer science to move into a career in medical research. Others take management or supervisory positions. Some choose to go to work for people who make equipment," says Mr. Kirby. "Those who go into medical sales have the potential to make as much as $100,000 per year, or they may go to work as application specialists and demonstrate the equipment at trade shows or at hospitals."

Second year cardiovascular technolgy students, Murivie hingada and Lori Pichette practice on high-tech medical equipment.

Elise Oehler, 29, came to the United States after completing her medical education in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Looking to supplement her medical training with technical training, she poured over material on a number of colleges and universities. It was upon touring the facilities at Grossmont that she stumbled upon what she refers to as San Diego's "best kept secret."

"This is a community college, but when I saw the lab here, I was amazed. They have equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. These professors are able to put together a lot of good, expensive equipment and make it available to students, and they give us 100 percent dedication. You do not find this at most places," says Ms. Oehler. "It doesn't surprise me that this happens to be one of the best programs of this kind in the country."

Although having a medical background no doubt gives Ms. Oehler an advantage in the program, those without such training are able to succeed, as well. Brian Showalter is now an Ultrasound Sonographer in the Cardiology Department at Mercy Hospital. A self-described "underachiever" throughout his youth, Mr. Showalter focused his attention on the construction industry rather than on school. Later, while taking courses toward his management degree at Grossmont, the Cardiovascular Technology program caught his eye.

"The professors and faculty are top-notch, and they devote a tremendous amount of time and energy to ensure the success of their students," says Mr. Showalter, who graduated at the top of his class. "The Cardiovascular Technology program gave me the opportunity to help people who truly need help, to work with very talented individuals and to advance in a career that is at the forefront of medical technology."

Instead of spending his day on a construction site, Mr. Showalter now spends his days in a hospital. He performs tests such as cardio ultrasounds, in which he places a small device called a transducer on a patient's chest. This instrument sends and receives ultrasonic waves that allow the technologist to see various structures within the heart. With the information that Mr. Showalter and his tests provide, doctors can determine whether or not a patient has coronary artery disease or a number of other valvular diseases.

"The ability to image the heart is extremely important; however, writing concise reports and communicating with cardiologists and heart surgeons about a patient's condition are also valuable parts of my job. Working in a hospital, you see some very sick people, so you stay focused and do your job," says Mr. Showalter, who is currently training to become a Vascular Technologist. "I love what I am doing, and the possibilities are almost endless."

Grossmont's Cardiovascular Technology program does more than just capture the interest of its students, it also produces graduates who are in demand from some of the countries premiere hospitals. Mr. Kirby proudly recalls the Mayo Clinic's attempt to hire each of the 20 students who graduated from Grossmont's "ultrasound track" last year.

Colin Ramsey currently manages Cardiac Services for Grossmont Hospital. He oversees a number of labs in the hospital and is also involved with hiring. "Ideal candidates for the Cardiovascular Technology program are people who may have had a medical background. They should work well in a team and be able to perform multiple task as the same time," says Mr. Ramsey, who lists other important candidate qualities as being observant, self-motivated, reliable and honest. "Our Grossmont graduates have the best training in the nation, if not the world."

After an extensive tour of the cardiovascular laboratories and classrooms, Mr. Kirby waves goodbye to his students and heads back to his office. His job satisfaction is obvious. "By far, the person who comes here is retraining and looking for another career. Here, you have this mature student body that has already been through some rigorous course work, so you know that they are here because they want to be here," says Mr. Kirby, who hopes that those who have been laid off in other technical fields around San Diego County will see this program as an opportunity. "Heart disease isn't going to go away; I don't see a cure on the horizon in my lifetime, anyway. If you have these skills, you'll be working again in no time."

For more information about Grossmont's Cardiovascular Technology Program call (619) 644-7302.

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